C.W. Gusewell


Clay Chastain: a gadfly with feet of clay

One afternoon 20 or so years ago, I was at work in The Star’s newsroom when a stranger arrived unannounced, knocked at the entrance of my cluttered little workspace and asked if I could spare a few minutes to hear his story.

No deadline was pressing, so I invited him to sit.

There seemed to be a kind of desperate urgency about him. He fidgeted as he spoke. And in fact, his situation as he described it seemed difficult indeed.

He was, he explained, a single parent with a daughter to raise. And at present he was unemployed.

“I have ideas,” he said. “I have a lot to offer. But what I need is some exposure. I need some press. I wonder if you would help me out.”

“Help you how?”

“With a column. Write a piece about me. That could give me a start.”

I was baffled. How had the guy found his way to me? And how could he dream I’d do that? We were a newspaper. We weren’t a launch pad for off-the-street startups.

What’s more, there was something about him that troubled me – a sort of messianic fervor that one sees in self-ordained prophets, receptacles of profound truths and people who claim to know the exact day and hour the world will end.

In a word, while I didn’t wish him ill, I wasn’t about to touch his story. He strode out, his disappointment plain. And I went ahead with the work he’d interrupted.

Only later did I learn that he’d walked straight across to the far side of the newsroom and cornered a different columnist – Arthur Brisbane, who wrote for our morning paper, The Times.

Art gave him the exposure he craved, and that was the beginning of Clay Chastain’s two-decade-long career as a gadfly and relentless public nuisance, determined to find a role in community affairs.

His first two petition drives were blocked by the City Council and never reached the ballot. Other efforts followed – most notably seeking public approval for creation of a municipal light-rail system. Repeatedly they fell short.

One proposition did make it onto the ballot and was narrowly approved, but it was deemed financially unfeasible – a judgment validated by a court’s ruling.

Frustrated, Chastain ran twice for mayor and once for national office, with only slight voter support. He left town – moved to another state – but couldn’t let his pet projects rest, and he kept turning up with new proposals. And after yet another rejection in 2005, he announced he was washing his hands forever of this benighted burg.

The promise was too good to be true.

For hardly more than a year later I was surprised to encounter him standing outside the Price Chopper grocery in Brookside – in his customary pose, holding a clipboard and soliciting signatures.

I walked past him toward my car without speaking.

“Don’t you know who I am?” he called after me.

“Yes,” I replied. “But you said you wouldn’t be back.”

So what began as gratuitous meddling had become first annoying, then tiresomely repetitive and finally almost comical.

And now, in what must be hoped is his last hurrah, Chastain is threatening yet another petition drive – this one to seek a recall of the current mayor and the City Council in retaliation for successive administrations’ consistent thwarting of his ambitions.

Given his track record, it is reasonable to suppose that our elected officials will have precious little cause for concern.